Whether you’re a first-time project manager or an experienced team lead, we all have one thing in common: we want the people we’re leading to do well. You want your teammates to collaborate, communicate, and connect with one another, so they can do their best work as effortlessly as possible. But how can you unlock good teamwork if the people you’re managing aren’t getting along?
That’s where group dynamics come in. When you understand what leads to good group dynamics, you can empower your group to communicate more clearly, collaborate more effectively, and get more high-impact work done together.
Group dynamics describe the interactions, attitudes, and behaviors between a set of people who are working together. The term was first used by social psychologist Kurt Lewin to describe how groups act and react to changing circumstances.
These dynamics don’t appear out of thin air—they grow out of the way people see themselves in relation to and among their peers. For example, you might have a positive group dynamic if your group is comfortable collaborating together. Alternatively, you might notice negative group dynamics if two people are trying to lead a project and aren’t listening to the other person’s input.
At Asana, we believe that good group dynamics start with great organizational culture. When team members feel welcome to be their full selves at work, they’re able to collaborate and communicate more effectively.Read: Asana’s approach to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity
A group is a collection of people who are working together. This can include formal groups—like teammates working under the same manager, a cross-functional project team, or members of an office—or informal groups—like coworkers who share common interests or identities.
For example, at Asana, we’ve created informal groups called Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Over two thirds of our employee base belongs to one or more of these groups, which support various communities to create safe, positive, and inclusive spaces for our employees to come together across different functional groups.
Bruce Tuckman first described how groups are formed in his 1965 theory Tuckman's stages of group development. According to Tuckman, there are five stages of group development:
Forming. This is when the group first gets together. If they’re working on a project, they may align on project goals or define their project plan. At this developmental stage, group members behave independently from one another—most of the conversations between group members are civil but distant.
Storming. The second developmental stage usually begins with a disagreement of some sort. This disagreement is the catalyst for group members to more actively share their opinions and be honest with one another. As a result of this honesty, group members begin to trust each other.
Norming. Once the group has resolved their initial disagreement or conflict, group interactions turn cooperative and friendly. During this developmental stage, the group will begin to establish group norms—even if they don’t discuss or record those norms. Unlike the independence from the Forming phase, group members in the Norming phase lean towards group decision-making and prioritize group cohesion. In fact, the danger of the Norming phase is that group members are too hesitant to share their opinions, which can lead to stagnation.
Performing. This is when the group is at their best. Group members are able to execute independently or tackle problem solving as a group. Instead of worrying about how other group members perceive them, individual members are focused on the group’s goals.
Adjourning or mourning. Tuckman added this stage in 1977 to describe the separation of the group once the project is over. If the group has been working well together, there can be a sense of loss when the group structure is dissolved.
Good group dynamics enable collaboration and communication because they reduce the barrier towards teamwork. When conversations flow easily, it can feel effortless to work together. But getting there takes time, practice, and support.
Group dynamics are a tool that can help you unlock better communication and collaboration. If you’re managing a group that isn’t moving forward the way you want them to, fostering positive group dynamics can help you improve the group’s productivity so they can hit their goals.
Too often, unclear communication can lead to confusion, strife, and negative group dynamics. By clarifying your communication expectations and channels, you can empower your team to communicate clearly and effectively.
Start by creating a communication plan to clarify which channel team members should use and when, how frequently different details should be communicated, and who is responsible for each of the different channels. For example, at Asana, we use:
Email to communicate with external clients or partners.
Slack for live communication about day-to-day updates and quick questions with team members.
Asana for asynchronous communication about work—like task details, project status updates, or key project documents.
Zoom or Google Meet for any team meetings, like project brainstorms.
When a group has negative dynamics, group members can struggle to get things done. In extreme cases, negative group dynamics can lead to hurt feelings and require conflict resolution. If you’re managing a group that has negative group dynamics, first understand where those dynamics are coming from. Then, you can pinpoint what is causing those issues and work towards solving them.
Before you can resolve negative group dynamics, you first need to recognize the signs. Negative dynamics can look like different actions and behaviors depending on the group. Some signs to look out for include:
Frequent frustration among group members
Group members who aren’t comfortable around one another
Group members who are confused, conflicted, or have negative self-esteem in relation to their peers
Group members who aren’t collaborating or communicating
Small groups, subgroups, or cliques that exclude other group members
Exclusive friendship groups
Once you’ve identified negative group dynamics, you can work to resolve those issues based on what is causing them. Here are the most common causes for negative group dynamics and how you can resolve them among your group.
Problem: Group members feel like a certain member or members aren’t pulling their weight.
Solution: Identify what is causing social loafing and support that group member.
Social loafing is the perceived psychological phenomenon that some individuals put in less work when they’re collaborating as a group. If group members think another person isn’t pulling their weight, that can cause frustration and reduce group morale. If this seems to be the case, read our article to learn why social loafing is more about clarity than productivity—and what you can do to help.
Problem: Group members are using passive or aggressive communication styles, which is impeding good communication.
Solution: Help group members express themselves assertively, instead.
Communication styles describe how group members interact and communicate. As you might imagine, some communication styles can create conflict in the workplace. For example, an aggressive communicator might make it hard for other group members to express their opinion. If a group member seems to be displaying a negative communication style, you can identify the root cause of why they’re communicating that way and help them communicate in a more assertive manner. Read our manager’s guide to communication styles to learn how.
Problem: Group members are struggling to creatively resolve problems.
Solution: Encourage co-creation and disagreement to spark good group collaboration and avoid groupthink.
One risk during the Norming stage is that your group becomes so cohesive they stop challenging each other. Disagreement is actually a critical part of collaboration—in order to co-create the best solution, group members need to build an idea together. If you notice your group going with the flow instead of coming up with new ideas, challenge them to come up with a creative solution that might be better.
Problem: Your group seems stuck on the Storming phase of group development—they haven’t been able to successfully set and stick to group norms.
Solution: Reassess your management style if necessary.
As the group lead, you want to give your group space to come up with their own ideas, be creative, and be innovative. But make sure you aren’t taking a completely laissez-faire approach to managing your group. On the flip side, make sure you’re giving your group enough space to develop group norms and connect with one another. There’s a fine line between guiding your group in the right direction but also letting them develop their own group processes. When in doubt, encourage your group to collaborate—but remember that you make the final decision if need be.Read: How this management style can help you support your team
Addressing negative group dynamics and helping your group work together more effectively can help you achieve your shared goals and improve group morale. But the best thing you can do to support group dynamics is to help your group see themselves as a team—instead of just a collection of people.
A group is a collection of people who are working together. Even though these team members might work together during a project, they don’t necessarily see themselves as part of a whole. Typically, members of the group are loosely connected by a goal, but they likely don’t have a shared purpose or set of values to work with.
Alternatively, a team is a group of people with a shared purpose and common goal. Team members are invested not only in their individual success, but also in the success of the team. Teams are more motivated and cohesive than groups, because team members see themselves as a part of something bigger. Team members share a specific goal that they focus on achieving together.
How can you empower your group to see themselves as a team? This is easier in some cases—for example, you can transform a cross-functional group into a team by focusing on the goal of the cross-functional project.
There are some situations that lack a clearly shared goal. For example, a group of people who share the same manager may be working on completely different projects with totally separate goals. The manager can use team building activities to bring their group members closer. But the easiest way to build a team is to share values.
Having shared values automatically puts everyone on the same team because they’re speaking the same language. With shared values, you can skip the Forming stage and get straight to high-impact work.Read: How we’ve designed a culture that fuels our business results
Shared values are something you can establish on the team, department, or company level. Most companies already have shared values—and if yours does, make sure you’re bringing those values into everyday work. Reminding your group that they share these values can help skip the Norming phase because the shared values are the norm. Instead of struggling to learn to work together, team members can unlock collaboration because they all have the same values.
At Asana, we believe that our company values guide us to achieve our mission. Every global Asana shares the same set of nine company values:
Mission. We are purpose-driven people, dedicated to serving something beyond ourselves. Having mission as a value also allows us to continually ground ourselves in why we’re building Asana.
Do great things, fast. We commit to being great at the things we do and doing them fast, without sacrificing one for the other.
Clarity. Our product and culture aim to ensure that teams know who is doing what, by when, and why, which unlocks the best work experiences and outcomes.
Co-creation. Great achievements are almost always the result of not one, but many. We bring our best, let go of egos, and work with empathy and trust to do great things together.
Give and take responsibility. Having integrity around our commitments means seizing exciting opportunities, and also owning it when we have to deprioritize something. We accept full ownership of our commitments, and empower and trust others to achieve theirs.
Mindfulness. We focus on the present and aim to give ourselves time to reflect and space to integrate what we learn. These practices allow us to collectively learn from and improve all that we do, and to continually evolve our culture.
Reject false tradeoffs. We stay curious, creative, and open to new perspectives. Choosing between two sides of an extreme results in losing the benefits of one, so we commit to searching for a third way that incorporates the truths of both.
Be real (with yourself and others). We know that our best work is tied to authenticity, which allows for growth and collaboration. We bring our whole selves to work and commit to building an inclusive environment in which all people feel safe and excited about being their full selves.
Heartitude. We embrace what makes us human, take time to play and have fun, and create meaningful experience for their own sake. Why do we have a unicorn flying across our product when we mark a task complete? The real question is—why not?
Shared values build a core set of beliefs that everyone on the team buys into. For example, our shared values at Asana help us immediately establish how a group will interact—they should co-create solutions while also giving and taking responsibility. Similarly, when team members approach larger projects, they have a shared baseline of how they will do that—by rejecting false tradeoffs while doing great things fast. More informally, values like heartitude and mindfulness help us show up on our teams and in our offices every day.
You’ll learn to build good group dynamics over time. By employing good collaboration and communication soft skills, you can empower your team to get their best work done. Where possible, create shared values early and often to turn your group into a team.
To learn more, read our article about effective communication in the workplace.